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Letter From The Editor

June 2024
3min read

The most important thing about a magazine—as we observed here recently and as history will bear out—is its authors. Most of ours are not only writers for magazines but also men and women who write books, the ultimate goal of historians. In A MERICAN H ERITAGE we capture them, so to speak, on their way. Very frequently articles assigned by this magazine turn into books, as did Gerald Carson’s about the cereal kings of Battle Creek, or Joe McCarthy’s piece on the great New England storm of 1938 ( Hurricane ), or Robert Alberts’ article on H. J. Heinz, or our own E. M. Halliday’s article about American soldiers fighting in North Russia in the aftermath of World War I, later published as The Ignorant Armies . Similarly, our former editor David McCullough developed his magazine article on the Johnstown Flood into a book; his latest work, The Great Bridge , on the building of the first and most famous span between New York and Brooklyn, has been receiving reviews that are enthusiastic to a degree rare in the book trade these days.

The list just cited could be extended endlessly; it should certainly include books whose authors we have come to know very well and printed regularly as their work progressed. One of the most notable of these, certainly, is Francis Russell, whose discoveries about the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the private life of President Harding we have shared with readers of this magazine. And there are our book excerpts, one to an issue and sometimes more, an attempt to keep our readers au courant with forthcoming books of importance in the enormous field of American history. Sometimes they are relatively obscure works that might otherwise be missed in the avalanche published every year (like “The New Teacher” in this issue), but just as often they are headlinecatching books by such writers as Barbara Tuchman (on General Stilwell) and Walter Lord (recently, on the War of 1812). General Lindbergh, John Kenneth GaIbraith, Henry Steele Commager, Bruce Catton, James MacGregor Burns, Morris Bishop—all stop by in our pages on their way to the bookstalls.

What spurs us into this discussion is the arrival on our desk of blurbs from Little, Brown and Company, of Boston, announcing completion of the four-volume biography of George Washington by James Thomas Flexner. It is an ambitious, movingly written, and fascinating study, notable in these days of task-force history as the product of one man’s labors. It is exceptional also for being the only extensive work on Washington in a century that the author has lived to finish, and it took twelve years. (He was seen, alive and frisky, as this went to press.)

Consultation with our index reveals that this magazine has published no fewer than a record eight excerpts from Mr. Flexner’s four volumes. How does it feel to finish a job like this? What thoughts go through one’s mind? We introduce here a few of the author’s comments, from the introduction to his last volume:

“During twelve years, I have on most mornings waked up anticipating association with an endlessly complicated and various individual who, so I became convinced, was one of the great men in all history. This is a privilege hard to relinquish. … I was assisted by the spirit of modern times that enabled me to present without creating any scandal such a frank character portrait as would have seemed shocking in any previous generation. … The Washington who has appeared on my canvas gains in stature, I believe, from the demonstration that he was not cold and perfect, but was possessed with the same hungers as the rest of us, which he was by no means always successful in controlling. …

“In the 1930’s and 1940’s … it became common to write about Washington’s Presidency as if he had hardly been there. Page after page describes Hamilton’s machinations and Jefferson’s countermoves, Washington’s name being thrown in occasionally to round out a sentence. This ignoring of the President was justified by the contention, which I believe this biography disproves, that Washington was no more than a shadow thrown by Hamilton. …

“My investigations have confirmed Washington in the position he held in the minds of his own contemporaries —even of those who came to distrust him—as the towering figure in the Revolution and in the establishment of the government of the United States: the individual who did more than any other one man to create and preserve the republic. …

“The dozen years during which I have worked on this biography have seen violent shifts in the American atti tude toward America. A wave of national self-abasement has viewed everything that had seemed noble in our history as suspect, hypocritical, probably evil. This biography was started before the self-disgust arose, and is being completed when Americans are reaching out again to find aspects of their civilization of which they can be proud. Although not written with the intention of being particularly apposite to the present moment or any other, this biography may, I hope, serve the current need, since it describes the career of a man who, through the storms of personal temperament and outside circumstance, labored to keep virtue his guiding star.”

We cannot differ with the author.

—Oliver Jensen

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